Saturday, 23 June

Gndevaz Cave: Armenia’s Hidden Ice Wonders Await the Intrepid

I must doubly pay attention as I make my way along a narrow path descending into the Arpa River gorge in Armenia’s Yeghegnadzor Province.

The snow has softened here and there and I can wind up buried in it if I misstep and slide. My two friends, Vachagan and Hrach, old hands at mountain climbing, help keep me safe.

“First, firmly plant your heel on the snow, get a grip, and then walk,” Vachagan instructs. We’ll be walking for about one kilometer, down along a winding path, until we reach the gorge near the village of Gndevaz. Our destination is a cave filled with stalagmites.

Here, a brief description is in order. When discussing mineral formations in caves, we often talk about stalactites and stalagmites. A stalactite is an icicle-shaped formation that hangs from the ceiling of a cave, and is produced by precipitation of minerals from water dripping through the cave ceiling. Most stalactites have pointed tips.

A stalagmite is an upward-growing mound of mineral deposits that have precipitated from water dripping onto the floor of a cave. Most stalagmites have rounded or flattened tips.

The term "stalactite" was coined in the 17th century by the Danish Physician Ole Worm who coined the Latin word from the Greek word σταλακτός (stalaktos, "dripping") and the Greek suffix -ίτης (-ites, connected with or belonging to).

Stalagnates are formed by the merger of the two.

The tallest stalagmite in the world, measuring 67.2 meters, and the biggest in Latin America, was discovered in Martin Infierno, a cave in Cuba’s province of Cienfuegos. The tallest in Europe, measuring 35.6 meters, is found in Buzgov, a cave in Slovakia.

The cave at Gndevaz has no name, and, as far as I know, no one has measured the stalagmites inside. While they won’t break any world records, my friends say they should be better well known in Armenia. The formations are best seen from December until the weather warms the gorge.

Hrach Babajanyan, a 21-year-old native of Gndevaz, says he used to hike down the gorge as a kid with his brother. “When the water dripped, it formed a glacier of sorts. It was great. With the predominant cold weather of these recent years, an ice tower formed. It’s a miracle when viewed up close,” Hrach says.

One good thing about the road to the cave is that it’s tough going and you need a guide to get there. Thankfully, this means the risk of someone destroying these natural wonders is minimal.

“Groups of hikers come and visit the cave. Usually, they’ll telephone and I’ll guide them. Otherwise, they can lose their way. I also check to see that no one damages the ice formations,” Hrach says.

Vachagan, from Jermouk, also escorts visitors to the cave. “People have to come prepared with the right gear and all. While we’re not climbing mountains, it’s a difficult descent down the gorge. The cave is also beautiful in the summer, when everything is green.”

The boys regret that the expedition was organized for the afternoon. They say the view is best as the sun goes down. It’s at dusk when the vanishing rays of the sun, behind the mountains, give of majestic hues of orange, violet and blue.

Hrach says the cave could really boost local tourism in the winter. He remembers taking a group of foreign tourists to the cave and how they were left speechless.

Hrach, a student majoring in tourism at the Yeghegnadzor branch of the State Economics University, says that hikers can now spend in the night in the village. Upon graduating this year, he wants to return and develop local tourism.

“Today, not many work in their field of education. I’ll be one of them. It’s a tourist area. The resort town of Jermouk is ten kilometers away. We can organize tours to Gndevaz for those staying at Jermouk.

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